In the tough Tepito neighborhood, where poverty, corruption and violence are daily realities, there is a beloved “saint” who understands and forgives the frailties of all human flesh.
Her domain is a labyrinth of grimy streets lined with auto-body shops and humble mom-and-pop stores. From her perch behind a glass-encased altar adorned with candles, decayed flowers and shot glasses of tequila, she watches scruffy curs pick through garbage while a constant stream of pilgrims lays offerings at her feet.
To Roman Catholic Church officials, the skeletal woman in the long, flowing robes is an evil figure, a grisly embodiment of satanic purposes. But to the desperately poor and overlooked residents of Tepito she is a pop-folk idol and often a last, best hope for answering unanswered prayers.
She is La Santa Muerte, “Saint Death.”
Her petitioners are prostitutes, drug dealers and murderers, as well as multitudes of ordinary housewives, taxi drivers and street vendors hoping to cure a sick child or pay the rent or simply make it through another day without getting robbed or shot.
Over the past 20 years, her following has grown so large that in some parts of Mexico she is becoming a rival in popular affection to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the manifestation of the Virgin Mary that is the reigning symbol of Mexican national identity.